Driving Habits can Predict Dementia

Elder Law | May 20, 2021 | Letha Sgritta McDowell

A recent study published by the MDPI Journal of Geriatrics analyzed naturalistic driving data to predict mild cognitive impairment and dementia in older drivers. The study used driving variables to predict whether a driver would later be diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment or dementia. While there are quite a few studies that examine the driving behavior of older adults with MCI or dementia, this is among the first to review driving behavior as predictive of a later diagnosis. The hope is that early identification will lead to early intervention and treatment.

The study examined almost 3,000 drivers who were identified as healthy and active between the ages of 65-79. Each driver was interviewed annually and their status as having either MCI or dementia was assessed based on annual interviews and medical records. Twenty-nine different driving characteristics were analyzed including total miles driven during a month, total trips in a month, trips made during a month which were less than 15 miles from home, total trips made at night, total trips made during rush hour, number of incidents of rapid deceleration (hard braking), number of speeding events, etc. The study determined that the top five driving indicators that were most likely to predict development of MCI or dementia was the percentage of trips made less than 15 miles from home, minutes per trip and number of hard braking events.

Ultimately the study concluded that examining natural driving tendencies along with age, sex, race/ethnicity and education resulted in a more accurate prediction of a diagnosis of MCI or dementia than looking at biological and demographic data alone. This information can be critical in early diagnosis.

Early diagnosis of MCI or dementia is critical for several reasons. While currently there is no way to reverse the changes in the brain that occur, there are medical treatments available to slow any disease progression. In addition, early diagnosis can allow for lifestyle changes such as changes to diet and exercise routines which can help slow any progression. It also allows for family members and loved ones to prepare and to develop care plans and other tools to allow both the patient and the family to prepare for later stages, which may be more challenging.

While the study was limited to just under 3,000 participants, the information discovered indicated that this type of driving analysis may be an important tool in predicting and diagnosing MCI or dementia.

While not the focus of the study, the study also highlights some common driving challenges or changes which occur with MCI or dementia. Getting lost in traffic or confused about location is perhaps the most obvious but other changes occur with dementia such as changes in depth perception and reduction in peripheral vision. All of these can make driving riskier. If you have a loved one who has been diagnosed with MCI or dementia, it is critical to monitor any driving and to err on the side of caution and discuss alternative transportation at the first signs of change. Unfortunately, it is all to common to believe someone is fine to drive because “they don’t leave the neighborhood” or “they only go a few places” however these are indicators of unsafe driving which can put others at risk. Neighborhoods are particularly concerning because of children and animals that may be in the street.

Ultimately this recently published study provides another way to predict MCI or dementia in advance of other medical criteria providing for early diagnosis and intervention which could possibly allow for early treatment and better patient care.


Client: Do I really need to have a power of attorney?

Mrs. McDowell: For many clients, this is the most important estate planning document. It is particularly helpful if you become incapacitated. A properly drafted power of attorney can avoid certain costly legal proceedings and can serve as a tool to protect your assets if you require nursing home care.


Hook Law Center: Hey Dan – it’s really heating up outside. Do you have any summer safety tips for pets and their humans?

Dan: Sure – summer is fun for everyone, including pets, however there are some important things to keep in mind

  1. Never ever leave a pet in a car. It can lead to fatal heat stroke quickly – even on days where the weather just seems warm
  2. Pets can overheat and it is critical to know the symptoms of overheating including excessive panting, difficulty breathing, increased heart rate, excessive drooling and even collapse.
  3. Never leave a pet unsupervised around a pool. Not all pets (even dogs) are good swimmers and they can drown just like humans.
  4. It is OK to trim a pet’s long fur but it is not a good idea to shave your pets. Like humans, pets can get sunburnt and shaving a pet rids them of the layers of fur that protect them from sunburn and overheating.
  5. Supervise your pets around those outdoor barbeques. Many people foods can make dogs and cats ill. If the humans are having an outdoor barbeque where they all wander and talk to their friends, they sometimes leave their food unsupervised which is very tempting to dogs and cats.
  6. Never use fireworks around your pets. The loud noises made by fireworks can make a pet scared and disoriented. In addition, fireworks contain chemicals which can be harmful or cause chemical burns to pets.

Summer is such a fun time to be outside and us pets love it like humans do – it’s just important to keep them safe. 

Letha Sgritta McDowell

Attorney, Shareholder, CELA
757-399-7506 | 252-722-2890
[email protected]

Letha Sgritta McDowell is a Shareholder of Hook Law practicing in the areas of estate planning, elder law, special needs planning, estate and trust administration, asset protection planning, long-term care planning, personal injury settlement consulting, guardianships & conservatorships, and tax law. Ms. McDowell’s clients range from high-net-worth individuals with over $75 million in net worth to families with limited assets.

Ms. McDowell is a past President of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and was named as a Fellow of the prestigious American College of Trusts and Estates Council (“ACTEC”) in 2020. She is certified as an elder law attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation (“CELA”) and Board Certified as a specialist in Elder Law by the North Carolina State Bar Board of Legal Specialization. Furthermore, McDowell is accredited to prepare and prosecute claims with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Ms. McDowell is currently the chair of NAELA’s strategic planning committee, a member of the Board of Directors for the North Carolina Chapter of NAELA, and a member of the Board of Directors for the Purdue Center for Cancer Research. She is the former Chair of the North Carolina State Bar’s Elder Law Specialization Committee and is the former Editor-in-Chief of “Gray Matters”, the newsletter for the Elder Law Section of the North Carolina Bar Association. She is a consultant for InterActive Legal and has worked on several law and technology initiatives including IBM’s Watson project. Along with her experience practicing as an attorney, she has dedicated much of her time writing for national publications including, but not limited to: Wolters Kluwer, Wealthmanagement.com, the NAELA Journal, Trust & Estates Magazine and many more.

Practice Areas

  • Elder Law
  • Estate & Trust Administration
  • Estate Planning
  • Asset Protection Planning
  • Long-Term Care Planning
  • Special Needs Planning
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